Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Why do American filmmakers suck? (I really didn’t intend to start this review with those words but I just couldn’t help myself.) Ok, not all American filmmakers suck but let’s face it, especially when it comes to the horror/thriller genre we lag far behind other countries such as Japan, Germany, and most of all Spain. It seems that a major reason for this is because American audiences really don’t demand much from Hollywood. We (I really mean they) will churn out in mass numbers for the latest I know why you Screamed when you Saw that Hostel hybrid, and they will still jump when a cat comes through a window or a hand reaches at someone from behind. You really can’t blame Hollywood for being lazy and just using gore and special effects to rake in the bucks. Why the rant? Well, because I just saw The Orphanage, a psychological thriller from Spain, that is far and away better than any American film of its kind.
Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to live in the mansion that was once the orphanage where she lived with several other young girls and boys. This time she’s all grown up and married to a doctor named Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their son, Simon (Roger Princep). Laura wants to take in five or six orphans and give them a chance at a better life as well. As they get the house ready it seems as though Simon has made some imaginary friends. This might be understandable given his situation (he is adopted and HIV positive, though his parents have revealed neither to him), but it upsets Laura nonetheless. Simon tells them that his imaginary friends have told him about being adopted and ill but Laura and Carlos suspect that he did a little investigating of his own. Simon talks about his newest friend Tomas, and the games they like to play. One day as Laura entertains some families, Simon goes missing, seemingly vanishing. The police are called and the searches performed but the boy can’t be found.
There is a suspicious old lady who had earlier turned up claiming she was a social worker checking up on Simon’s well being, and who Laura found creeping around in their shed one night. The police however have no record of a social worker with her name. Laura begins to hear sounds coming from different parts of the house; she even thinks there might be someone in her bed other than Carlos. Months go by and nothing turns up but Laura is convinced that Simon is still alive and that his imaginary friends may not be so imaginary after all, especially Tomas. Is she going crazy or is she so stricken by grief that her own imagination might be getting the best of her? The press notes ask critics not to give away the ending but there is much more that shouldn’t be given away; one of the film’s pleasures is how the clues surrounding Simon’s disappearance reveal themselves, and what they really mean once we’re able to run them through our mind after the film is over.
Much of what happens to Laura throughout the film has to do with her own memories and wounds from childhood, from her life as an orphan. There are scenes that make us nearly jump out of our skin not because of a cheap effect but because of sheer filmmaking talent. Director J.A. Bayona seems to come from the same gene pool as Guillermo Del Toro (Executive Producer of the film) and he knows how to use shadows, backgrounds and camera movements in order to create suspense and scares. It also helps that the horror here is deep rooted in childhood pain and realistic fears which are blended (much like in Del Toro’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth) into a surreal fantasy world of ghosts and uncertain memories. As Laura gets more desperate, her imagination grows more vivid and the reality of the situation becomes even less certain.
Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sanchez are well aware of the thrillers of their youth, and they incorporate some of them into their film. But, the result isn’t homage as much as it is reinvention; it’s their time now and they are proving that they can do it better. It’s important that they don’t feel above it all as Bayona has no problem with creaky doors that seem to open themselves, or tight, dark places that we just know Laura shouldn’t be venturing into. There are even hands reaching at us from behind, but with a different twist this time. It’s obvious that Bayona and Sanchez are having a great time scaring the hell out of us, but it’s ok because they earn it.
The Orphanage is really a story about loss and how a mother comes to deal with it. Laura’s past plays a big part in her story, as does the house that was once her orphanage, and the friends she was never able to say goodbye to. I read in the press notes that Belen Rueda is a famous television actress in Spain, but I’m quite sure she’s never delivered a performance like this before. She makes Laura’s desperation and grief so real and deeply felt that it becomes the heart and soul of the film. The real horror can be found in her agony and it makes everything that comes with it all the more unsettling.